I’d like to point readers to a terrific three-part essay by Laura Portwood-Stacer on three reasons why people refuse media, addiction, asceticism, and aesthetics. We can apply this directly to what might become an increasingly important topic in social media studies: social media refusers, already (edit: and unfortunately, as Rahel Aima points out) nicknamed “refusenicks”. There will be more to come on this blog on how to measure and conceptualize Facebook (and other social media) refusal, but let’s begin by analyzing these three frameworks used to discuss social media refusal and critique some of the underlying assumptions. [A note I'd like to include after reading some comments to this piece: the reasons for refusal listed here are certainly not the only reasons people refuse media. Second, critiquing some of the assumptions made by current refusal paradigms is not an attempt to argue we shouldn't theorize refusal; indeed, it is an attempt at just the opposite, to build towards a more accurate understanding of refusal.]
The “addiction” framework seeks to pathologize media consumption practices, and if we agree with Foucault’s point that much of the discourse around pathology (for him, mental illness) is actually about constructing its opposite, the “normal,” we might see the “Internet addiction” genre as really about normalizing our own supposedly non-addict behavior. The result is that, according to Portwood-Stacer,
Consumer culture and the corporations which power it are thus left unproblematized, while individual pathological behaviors are subjected to scrutiny and critique
We are encouraged to understand the tendency to succumb as indication of personal moral failure [...] a rehash of the neoliberal responsibilization we’ve seen in so many other areas of “ethical consumption”
Vaughan Bell has a terrific piece on how “‘internet addiction’ relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of what the internet is.” Further, on Cyborgology earlier this year, Jenny Davis provides additional critique, looking at how the addiction paradigm wrongly assumes that the Web is separate from everyday life. If social media is simply socializing, or communicating, can we really be “addicted”?
Putting these thoughts in conversation with each other, it seems that the “Internet addiction” paradigm is not about refusing this media at all, it is about reframing our anxieties and difficulties as something we can fix. We construct an Internet Illness to create an Internet Normal; both of which are predicated on a digital dualist fallacy: these are technological problems with technological solutions. When problems are wrongly centered on technologies and the responsibility is laid on individuals we forget the social problems at root in service of a self-help industry ready to sell you treatment, or, at a minimum, get lots of advertiser-supporting page-views.
Second, Portwood-Stacer describes asceticism as another reason for refusing media. The ideas is that one’s life could be improved by eliminating a specific media platform, like Facebook; that is, to,
subject their personal behaviors to ethical scrutiny, and then, importantly, to employ technical solutions aimed at satisfying any problems which are identified
This tendency involves “depriving the self of a desired object in the interest of purifying the self,” Further,
Many media refusers, instead of or in addition to wanting to become more productive selves, also express the desire to become better friends, partners, parents, and community members through their reduction in media consumption. Might we see these kinds of selves as resisting the logic of neoliberal individualism then?
I agree fully, but would like to diverge a bit from Portwood-Stacer’s essay because I see this a bit differently, and perhaps a bit less optimistically. In my essay on The IRL Fetish, I argue that the social media fast/diet genre is really about making two mistakes in order to demonstrate how special and real one is while others are robotically attached something virtual and trivial. The first mistake is to underestimate the offline-ness inherent in social media. Research shows those using social media more tend to do more offline and face-to-face. Indeed, much of Facebook is what you do when not on Facebook; your Facebook contacts are mostly your face-to-face contacts, your Facebook photos are mostly of what you are doing when not tethered to a screen, etc. The second mistake follows from the first: incorrectly thinking logging off of Facebook is really disconnection. Spending the day off of Facebook is where we build interpersonal connections that flow back onto the site when we next log on. Not-Facebook is where we take the photos we’ll later upload, where we think the thoughts that congeal into status updates, etc.
The influence of social media is not just what happens when looking at the screen, but also how the logic of social sharing via those sites is carried around with social media users almost all the time. Thus, as Whitney Erin Boesel states,
it may be technically impossible for anyone, even social media rejecters and abstainers, to disconnect completely from social media and other digital social technologies
And PJ Rey,
social media may not have a direct impact on the lives of non-users, but non-users are nevertheless part of a society which constantly changes as the mutually-determining (i.e., “dialectical”) relationship between society and techonology unfolds. Social media is non-optional: You can log off but you can’t opt out.
The result of making these conceptual mistakes about social media refusal is to invent and valorize one’s own disconnection: ‘I don’t waste my life on something so trivial, I appreciate the real; my life has depth and meaning.’ While the Internet Addiction paradigm is about constructing a pathology to declare our own normalcy, the Internet Asceticism paradigm is constructing the normal, boring, ordinary, quotidian blind follower of social media to declare our own special non-use, casting ourselves as a little more real, deep, special, and unique than the rest. And now, as we will see, we have intruded on Bourdieu’s territory, making for an easy segue:
The third reason for media refusal in Portwood-Stacer’s essay is aesthetics, that we might develop a taste for refusal. The essay rightly points out that while taste is often thought to be something that cannot be helped, it is also a product of one’s socialization. Boudrieu’s Distinction looked specifically at how taste is much like a massive social competition, a constant recreation of social hierarchies via taste-declarations and performances, and that all of this has everything to do with class, status, and privilege. From Portwood-Stacer’s essay,
Statements like “I don’t even own a TV” rub some people the wrong way precisely because they seem to indict the tastes of those who do enjoy watching television. Even if that’s not what the TV refuser intended, the underlying reification of taste hierarchies is what makes their aesthetic preference seem so hipstery and off-putting.
It takes some amount of priveledge to opt out of certain things, and we can apply this “asceticism of the privileged” to Facebook as well. To the degree that Facebook is about maintaining social networks and connections, knowing about the right trends and events, or what Bourdieu called “social capital,” then rejecting this capital can itself be a display of privledge (even if it is not always). Brushing off Facebook is sometimes a way of saying ‘I don’t need this common form of connection like everyone else, I am so well-connected I can do without it.’ Being able to navigate a world of complex social networks without Facebook, a platform that facilitates this process in many social circles, is a profound display of privilege and status, one that the Facebook abstainer might (consciously or unconsciously) want others to marvel at.
The tl;dr of all of this is to move forward in studying media refusers, social media refusers, Facebook refusers, “refusenicks”, etc, and I think we need to begin by shedding the digital dualist “online” and “offline” conceptualization that “refusal” seems to imply. This has four main consequences for thinking about social media refusal: (1) Social media communication is not something one can be “addicted” to any more than offline communication. (2) Because, for many, social media is enmeshed in everyday life we cannot simply blame social problems on the technologies themselves. Nor should we pathologize individuals by victim-blaming ourselves out of taking on the social processes that create the problems. (3) We should not mistake social media use as the opposite of refusal; on and offline as zero-sum is a common misunderstanding. Getting offline is often what drives the content of what is posted online. (4) Refusal should not be conceptualized as time away from the screen. This is far too literal understanding of social media, it affords too much agency to someone to simply “opt out,” and it obscures the fact that refusing the effects of social media is not simply achieved by tapping the ‘log out’ icon on a screen.
The still tl;dr is that the Facebook refusal paradigms (1) normalize our social media use by constructing the addict ‘other’; (2) fetishize our social media non-use by inventing some pretend pure offline to (3) declare our own special privilege as someone who doesn’t need Facebook.
Note: Boaz rightly observes in the comments that I originally stated that these three are the “most popular” frameworks, which is not something I can really support.